Plagways: of squirrel fur and plastic toys? The art of mis-translation

You don’t need to be a linguist to appreciate verbal humour, from the silliest schoolchild pun to the subtlest word play. Sometimes, the most amusing verbal humour is unintended, resulting from mis-translation or misinterpretation. In my family this sort of thing is known as ‘plagways’… and this word has now actually achieved dictionary status as Mike Zollo will explain.

Defective diplomacy…there have been some notorious mistranslations by interpreters at the level of international trade and diplomacy, although I’m not convinced about the origins of the story of a foreign company stating to a British manufacturer, “We wish to order five of your water goats”, intending to order… hydraulic rams.

That story is probably apocryphal, but the following incident actually happened: in a speech given during his visit to Poland, former US president Jimmy Carter appeared to express sexual desire for the then-Communist country. Or that’s what his interpreter seemed to say, anyway. It turned out Carter had said he wanted to learn about the Polish people’s ‘desires for the future’. The interpreter turned the innocent statement that Carter was ‘happy to be in Poland’ into “he was happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts”. There are further examples of this sort of faulty interpreting in the BBC online article: The greatest mistranslations ever.

Just as amusing are the incidents resulting from failure to appreciate that a word in one language can have various different meanings or connotations in another, depending on context. In a previous article, I mentioned one of the most well-known at the level of international relations: John F Kennedy’s famous 1963 speech in Berlin, when he declared: “Ich bin ein Berliner”, often misconstrued as “I’m a doughnut”! This still gives rise to debate, but Kennedy was just trying to express solidarity with Berlin citizens. Sometimes, apparently innocent words and phrases can be misunderstood because they have other meanings! The listener or reader needs to be aware of the context. Perhaps misinterpretation can be intentional… Now, what might citizens of Hamburg be called?!

Talking of interpreting – which I used to teach in a military college – I once had to accompany a very senior but rather boorish Romanian officer on his tour of the college. He was accompanied by his lieutenant and a London-based Romanian lady acting as official interpreter. At one point the lieutenant took umbrage at the inaccuracy of the interpreter’s rendering of his boss’s comments. She explained to me later that she was ‘filtering’ the comments, as they were so disparaging and offensive. In this case, intentional ‘mistranslation’ probably avoided a diplomatic incident!

One could lose oneself reading about some famous mistranslations  described on the language education website Rosetta Stone, but for me the most curious and amusing is the one which led to the Japanese reversal of a Valentine’s Day tradition: in the Land of the Rising Sun, it is the women who give chocolates to men (I rather like that idea!) and I suspect that the mistranslation in this case resulted from the different word order in the language of origin, compared to the word order in the ‘target’ language. A lack of grammatical knowledge can have the same result. I know someone who regularly causes amusement in Spanish shops: instead of saying ‘necesito paracetamol’ (‘I need…’), she says ‘necesitas paracetamol’ (‘you need…’):  imagine how easy it would be to offend a chemist by saying they need deodorant! Helpfully, Rosetta Stone offers an appropriately targeted piece of advice after each mistranslation anecdote … well worth studying them. In this case, it is “Translation tip: The ability to understand and interpret native speakers comes from not only understanding the language, but also the culture and history of a country.” Clearly, the teaching and learning of the culture of the country of the ‘target language’ should accompany that of the language itself. But that could be the subject of a whole article in itself!

A little knowledge…

On a visit to Málaga in 1970, we were amused by the fish section on a restaurant menu which listed: “Little fishes”; “more little fishes”; “even more little fishes” as translations of sardinas, boquerones and chanquetes (sardines, anchovies and whitebait). I suppose that was as much as they could manage in the absence of a good dictionary and Google translate. In ‘our’ Spanish village, my aspiration to integrate and become a member of the community has led me to help the ayuntamiento (town hall) staff with translations of various announcements into English, hence avoiding errors of mistranslation. However, the staff often rely on their own English ability, and the errors, when they occur, often result from choosing the wrong version of the word for the context.

One of the most amusing examples of this which I saw recently was the notice on the town hall website announcing a carol concert; the Spanish for Christmas carols is villancicos; the notice seemed to announce that there would be ‘villains’ in the main square! Fair enough: villano can mean ‘villain’ as well as ‘peasant’, from which the diminutive form villancico was derived to mean ‘popular song’. A further example: the village cemetery is famous for being circular, but publicity aimed at tourists describes it as being ‘peculiar’… which works in Spanish, because of its meaning ‘unusual’. This is how it should have been rendered in English, rather than as ‘peculiar’! I suspect that they often use an on-line translator; the trouble is that no computer can take account of cultural context, and the context of what is being translated. More of that later.

A little knowledge can also be a dangerous thing in the realm of pronunciation, if yours doesn’t fit the patterns of the target language. Double consonants in Italian are pronounced with double length. In some cases, two similar words may be differentiated by a single or double consonant, or by different pronunciation. Best in an Italian restaurant to make sure you double the ‘n’ when you order penne all’arrabiata; otherwise, the staff might think you are suffering from a rather painful condition in your nether regions – at least if you are male! In Spanish, beware of saying your age (“Tengo 21 años”) without differentiating between a normal ‘n’ and the ‘ny’ effect of ‘ñ’. After all, everyone knows the words of the song “Y viva España!”… but “Tengo 21 anos” would give the impression that you have multiple rear ends!

Music to their ears

Whilst English has become an international language thanks largely to its prevalence in IT, the internet, and the widespread availability of American and British culture, popular music has played its part, too. During my two spells teaching English in Spain, students would often ask me about the lyrics of popular hits from the UK and US. “Mike, ¿por qué ‘Azúcar, azúcar, Sugar, sugar’?”, referring to the 1969 ‘bubblegum’ hit by The Archies.  However, the English acquired in this way can be misinterpreted and can have unexpected consequences. A good example of this is the song ‘Ken Lee’… Ken Lee?? This clip of ‘Bulgarian Pop Idol’ explains all. English is not the only language difficult to interpret; here’s another attempt to sing a recent Latino popular hit.

Misinterpreting what you hear in another language is not restricted to music… this clip below is a spoof, in fact an advertisement for a provider of language education, but it is, nonetheless, amusing.

Fairytale fantasy

However, for me the most notorious ‘auditory’ mistranslation – of which most people are unaware – gave rise to a crucial feature in one of the best-known fairy tales: Cinderella. Have you ever wondered how comfortable or practical glass slippers would be? Yep, rather ridiculous, if the truth be known! Some ‘experts’ – including my French teacher 60-odd years ago – reckon that this resulted from a mis-translation. Supposedly, in the original version of the fairy tale, Cinderella’s shoes were made of fur, which seems much more likely – and comfortable – but as the story was translated from one language to another, the fur slippers ‘mutated’ into glass. The French archaic word for squirrel fur, which is vair, sounds the same as verre (glass). OK, ‘glass slipper’ sounds much more romantic, and is well established as an essential part of one of the most famous and popular fairy stories. Odd, but what seems nonsensical as a material for shoes was very likely the result of a mis-translation! Try watching this French version of Cendrillon and listen out for the word ‘verre’…. Or is it ‘vair’?! You might also be surprised – and amused – to hear the French expression for ‘magic wand’!

Artificial translation: reliable?

Nowadays, machine or AI (artificial intelligence) translation is relied upon by many people, and certainly the quality of translation is much more reliable than in the early days. We’ve already seen a couple of dodgy renderings by the local town hall. Google-translate and similar apps can still be notoriously inaccurate. Being a petrol-head, I participate on several car forums (or is it fora?) on Facebook. They attract owners of cars like mine from all over the globe; when seeking or giving advice or information, the non-native-English speakers often rely on Facebook’s automatic translation: fertile ground for howlers! Here’s a recent example:

Bonsoir que signifie le voyant orange avec la voiture svp?” – “Good evening, what does the orange psychic with the car mean please?”

… and here’s the reason for the mistranslation, from my trusty online dictionary friend:

voyant nm                               (lumière témoin)                      indicator, warning light

voyant nm, voyante nf           (qui a le don de voyance)       clairvoyant, fortune teller, psychic

Another example which popped up while I was writing this, was that of an Italian describing his classic Renault 8. The English translation stated that the car has a ‘good catch’; I checked the original Italian version of the post: he had used the Italian word ‘ripresa’… which also means ‘acceleration’.

Translation defined

Translation is not just a question of scientific precision – it is an art. The very word means  ‘carrying over’ the meaning, from speaker or writer to the listener or reader. The aim is to achieve ‘communication’ – the thoughts behind the words of the one, being conveyed faithfully to the mind of the other, so that both are ‘as one’. It is not just a question of the words, but also the nuances, and perhaps even emotions. This is why I don’t trust machine translation or AI translation. No machine can ever understand nuance, emotion and the intrinsic intention of the utterance; nor can it take into account the culture of the country.

Derivatives and Cognates

It is more reliable to use solid knowledge and experience of the language and the associated culture. During my 45 years or so of teaching I have always encouraged students to make the most of the knowledge they already have, to identify derivatives – words based on those they already know. In English an example would be ‘derive’ > ‘derivation’, ‘derivative’. Equally useful is an awareness of the relationship between the vocabularies of languages with a common ‘parent’. Of course, there are very strong similarities in grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure in Romance languages (derived from Latin), such as Spanish, French and Italian. As an experienced student of these three, I can read Portuguese quite fluently, even though I certainly couldn’t speak it or write it beyond a few phrases. It is not rocket-science to see the link between ‘tagliatelle’ (Italian) – ‘taille’ (French, ‘size’) – ‘talla’ (Spanish, ‘size’) – ‘tailor’ (English): all relate to the idea of cutting, such as in Italian ‘tagliare’ (to cut). Similarly, with German ‘hund’, Dutch ‘hond’ and English ‘hound’. The fact is that within any family of languages, such as Romance languages, or those with Germanic roots, such as Dutch, German and the basis of English, there are many similarities in vocabulary. This offers the phenomenon of cognate recognition; of course, an awareness of spelling and pronunciation of each language helps in this process.

False friends

Cynical linguists, however, will point out the existence of faux amis, falsos amigos – false friends. This is where the word in one language looks and/or sounds like a word in another language, but has a quite different meaning. A few years ago, in a Spanish town, my wife wanted some cloth; she directed me to a large shop which she was sure would have what she wanted: “It’s a fabric shop”, she assured me. In fact, the huge letters across the façade announced Directo de Fábrica, (direct from the factory): this was just a large bazar chino, one of the Chinese shops which abound in Spain, selling a huge range of items (all made in China!), and probably even the cloth my wife wanted.

Another example of this is the diagnosis of gripe; this word is the Spanish for ‘flu’, nothing to do with colic or painful bowels! In the realm of health, there are other mismatches resulting from false friends: if a Spanish woman says “estoy constipada”, she means she has a cold, not that she has a digestive problem! A word of advice: when your French host offers you another portion of coq au vin, a good way to say you are full (can’t eat any more) might seem to be “Non merci, je suis plein” but this can mean “I am pregnant”! In Spain many years ago, my wife once famously asked for ‘una botella de vino rojo, and wondered why the shopkeeper answered “No, señora, ¡vino tinto!”Rojo’ works fine for ‘red’ in most contexts, such as for the fairy tale Caperucita roja (now, what might that be in English?), but not in the context of wine.


Talking of shops, I remember an experience in Madrid in 1978, in the post-Franco destape (‘uncorking’) era, the cultural re-awakening of Spain. One day I went into a local shop to buy milk for breakfast. In the shop, two old men were discussing the pornographic magazines which one of them had seen that morning, on sale for the first time in a newspaper kiosk in the Puerta del Sol. As he gave his friend a lurid description of what had been on display, his eyes were popping out – and so were those of his friend. Curious… but then as I left the shop clutching my carton of milk, my twisted linguist brain remembered that the Spanish word for a shop selling dairy produce is lechería. Not quite a ‘false friend’ and certainly not a cognate, just a curious coincidence of a known word with the scene I had just witnessed, resulting from my whimsical intentional mistranslation!

A few years ago, I produced a very unscientific comparison of the numbers of useful cognates and the deceptive ‘false friends’ in a few pages of text; the cognates won by a very large margin. Of course, it is best to take into consideration the context and the cultural associations involved, to decide whether your cognates are reliable!


So, what on earth is ‘plagways’? We first came across it on the packaging of a free Chinese-made toy included with a children’s meal on a Brittany Ferries crossing. I think it was a plastic miniature bagatelle or pin-ball game; the rather florid instructions on the packaging, stressing what fun the users would have playing with this object, ended with the statement: “If you do this, you will have PLAGWAYS!”

Since then, every time we have seen a mistranslation or nonsense English, for example on a t-shirt sold in a Spanish street market or whatever, we say “PLAGWAYS”! Another source of frequent ‘plagways’ sightings is unsolicited email; typically, phishing scams purporting to be from a courier service demanding payment to book redelivery of something you never did order anyway. See if you can identify the ‘plagways’ elements in the image of one I received recently from the spurious courier ‘Express’, which does not exist! Note how it mimics the colours and style of DHL Express.

Now, the term ‘plagways’ features in the Urban Dictionary online, with the following explanation: “Simple yet effective engrish word with no known meaning but many different uses found on non-American manufactured toys. Now known as a common engrish joking term combined with phrases such as now your base are belong to us.”

Let’s finish with a truly amazing bit of ‘plagways’… instructions for using a shampoo: please remember that the language is not mine!